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Macron Tries To Take Steam Out Of Yellow Vest Protests With Debates


Yellow vest protesters were on the streets of Paris and other French cities Saturday. This is the 12th week of demonstrations. President Emmanuel Macron is hoping to release some steam out of the movement by holding a series of public debates. They are scheduled through mid-March, and they have been dubbed the great national debate. Here's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Well, I'm walking up to the town hall in Paris' 15th arrondissement. And I'm just stunned. There's just a huge line of people outside waiting to get in for this public debate.

JOCELYN MARBEAU: My name is Jocelyn Marbeau. And I'm - I was a math professor, and I'm retired. And I want to to hear what people have to say about what is working and not working in our democracy. So we have problems to solve, and I really believe we have to solve them without all this violence that we have seen, you know, this past weeks.

BEARDSLEY: Marbeau says she's been shocked by the fighting, car burning and looting that has gone on in downtown Paris during many of the yellow vest demonstrations. Retired engineer Ian Drewsbury is completely fed up.

IAN DREWSBURY: The yellow vests are a very tiny minority in France. They make a lot of noise. And they make a big nuisance of themselves. It's time for them to shut their mouths and let the normal people, who are what you see here, debate and decide.

BEARDSLEY: But Drewsbury says the yellow vests are not wrong about everything, and it's about time Macron consulted the people. The French president is hoping the mass consultations will help channel anger. He has also promised to take people's ideas and suggestions into account for the second half of his term.


BEARDSLEY: There is disappointment when an official comes out to announce the debate is full. But he leaves notebooks for people to write their complaints and suggestions. These lists of grievances are a throwback to the French Revolution, when the disgruntled masses filled 40,000 such ledgers of complaints.


BEARDSLEY: Inside, at least 400 people fill a high-ceilinged banquet hall. There's a spillover room with 150 more on the floor below. The two rooms are linked by video. And the great debate gets underway. It kicks off with talk of taxes and retirement pensions but slowly moves through a whole array of topics, from unemployment to cheaters in the Paris Metro. Hands shoot up, and people are eager to speak.


BEARDSLEY: The debate is civil except for mild irritation at citizens who don't know when to stop talking. One man is applauded when he says he's thankful for his good health care and free university education. Last week, President Macron showed up unannounced at a debate and parried with a couple of yellow vesters.




BEARDSLEY: "If you didn't vote for me, well, I regret that," said the president good-naturedly. "But if you didn't vote at all, well, I'm sorry. You can't be proud to not vote but then go out and block highways when you don't agree with something."


BEARDSLEY: Thirty-six-year-old Rafael Karas is heading home after the three-hour Paris debate.

RAFAEL KARAS: (Through interpreter) It was interesting and passionate. But there were quite a lot of old people talking about retirement, and not enough young people showed up.

BEARDSLEY: Critics say not enough yellow vests are taking part either. Many in the movement denounced the debates as a marketing ploy. Still, there's no denying their success. In just two weeks, more than 3,000 debates have taken place, and an energized Macron is out to reconquer his nation. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELENA HAUFF'S "QUALM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.